What do you know about trauma? How would you define it if you had to? The best way to describe trauma is not so much by discussing the actual event that created the trauma, but by explaining that trauma is anything that overwhelms your ability to cope. In other words, you do not have the skills or abilities (at the time) to cope appropriately with the aftereffects of the trauma. This is why it is extremely important that families (friends, coworkers, and caregivers) have a keen eye on victims of trauma who may not have the appropriate coping skills to cope. When coping skills are lacking, including a clear understanding of why the trauma occurred, suicidal thoughts, homicidal thoughts, self-injurious behaviors, depression, anxiety, and sometimes even psychotic symptoms (delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized/confused thought patterns) occur.
This article will discuss some of the facts we should all know and keep in mind about trauma.
Definitions of trauma continue to change over time as we, as mental health professionals, learn more about it. There really is no real set definition of trauma. However, the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice defines trauma as:
“The word “trauma” is used to describe experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing, and that overwhelm people’s ability to cope, leaving them powerless.”
Sadly, most trauma begins in childhood and is often the worst kind of trauma due to its affects on the developing brain. Thankfully, youths are resilient and often rebound, but some youths do not. Many grow into adults who continue to struggle with the trauma. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network utilizes a very helpful quote on childhood trauma:
Sometimes adults say, ‘They’re too young to understand.’
However, young children are affected by traumatic events,
even though they may not understand what happened.
As stated above, childhood trauma often grows into adult trauma. Some facts that are often ignored, by society, about trauma include:
- You cannot just get over it: A lot of people believe that trauma is very similar to a “bad experience” that you can get over with time, therapy, and sometimes even drugs (illegal or prescription). Trauma involves a psychological, physiological, and emotional experience that alters the brain and the body including the ways in which we perceive events, people, etc. after the trauma. For example, veterans who return home after seeing repeated deaths, murders, and crime up close and personal, often struggle with trusting others, developing healthy relationships, and leading a somewhat normal life. Their perception of life has drastically changed by the time veterans return home. What they have heard and seen has such an effect on their emotions, body, and mind that many return home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD has been widely researched by those interested in trying to understand how trauma alters every aspect of a once emotionally and psychologically stable individual.
- “Trauma” means different things to different people: Trauma continues to interest me for multiple reasons, hence my certifications. Trauma is a very complex thing to study as it requires years of research, experience (through people you know or with clients), and patience. Trauma isn’t as simple as a bad experience and often seems “rebellious” to treatment. Some families require years of therapy to get over their trauma. The worse the trauma, the longer it will take to heal.
- Trauma can be as simple as daily stressors for some people: While working in a residential treatment facility (RTF) of children (ages 9) and adolescents (ages 12-19), every single day was a traumatic experience for these kids. Watching over patients being restrained (chemically or physically), getting into arguments with staff members, running out of therapist offices during tough sessions, and trying to escape the premise were all traumatizing events for those involved in them (direct trauma) and those who were not (indirect or vicarious trauma). African Americans and other disenfranchised cultures find daily life stressful, especially if they are segregated, experiencing racism, or struggling with low income. At risk youth often face daily struggles such as not having enough food to eat, not having transportation, witnessing violent crimes (i.e., murder, rape, etc.), and having to grow up fast and take care of siblings are all traumatizing events. Trauma to one person may not be trauma to another. It’s subjective.
- You need a specialist in trauma to get real treatment: Most people believe that any therapist can help the individual heal from their trauma. Unfortunately, if the therapist is not trained in understanding the effects of trauma on the human experience, it will be difficult to grow in therapy, start the healing process, and learn from the therapist if their experiences have not included working with trauma victims. Mental health professionals who have been trained and certified in trauma can help clients take the “baby steps” needed to grow, learn, and heal. It is also very important to find a therapist who is experienced with trauma clients and not just certified. Any professional can obtain a trauma certification and have absolutely no experience working with trauma.
- Trauma is very misunderstood: Because of a lack of wide-spread knowledge on trauma, there are people who will deny ever having been traumatized because “I don’t think it was that bad.” Individuals who are having a difficult time accepting a traumatic experience may also deny that they are traumatized. This does not mean trauma did not occur. In fact, many families will deny a traumatic experience such as rape, child molestation, or severe domestic abuse because “everyone is older now” and the abuse has stopped. I previously worked with 2 clients (who were brothers) who were told to “get over” their experience of hearing their father severely beat their mother during a domestic dispute. These young men suffered from flashbacks (hearing their mother screaming and seeing their father punch her), guilt (for not being able to step in or being too afraid to ask for help), and resentment of their father. Sadly, the grandmother felt these young men were holding grudges when in fact they were struggling to heal.
- Therapy for trauma is often not enough: Therapy is the first step toward recovery, healing, and growth. If you find a really good therapist, your chances of healing and growing are great. However, therapy is not enough for individuals who have experienced trauma and may also have complex trauma (trauma that is complicated, prolonged, and has many layers). For many people, support from others, spiritual “counseling” or support, relying on family or close friends, opening your mind to medication if needed (even if short-term), becoming more mindful of your physical health through exercise and healthy eating, etc. can all be helpful in pushing the traumatized individual forward.
- There is a real difference between childhood trauma and adult trauma: Childhood trauma seems to be the most severe form of trauma in my eyes. Children are so delicate in their interpretations of the world that one traumatic incident, often contradicting their innocent worldview, can destroy their functionality. Kids are, however, very resilient and able to “bounce back” with the right amount of protective factors (i.e., supportive adults, counseling services, inclusion in healthy social relationships, having access to school and proper education, supportive grandparents or extended family members, having an interest in positive extracurricular activities, etc.). Protective factors (i.e., things that encourage recovery and offer support) are often lacking in situations in which childhood trauma grows into adult trauma.
What has been your experience with trauma and incorrect views on the topic? Are you a victim of a traumatic experience and find yourself being misunderstood by others?
As always, I look forward to interacting with you.
I wish you well